Facebook and Twitter have transformed the way people communicate with family, friends and long-lost classmates. But electronic mailing lists like LISTSERV and Yahoo! Groups remain the tool of choice at the neighborhood level. It’s how many people share advice about local services, sell stuff and debate community issues. Tech Tuesday explores the history and enduring power of email groups, and examines the future of neighborhood communications.


  • Jennifer Golbeck Assistant Professor, College of Information Studies, University of Maryland
  • Maria Thomas Interim President and COO, Loosecubes; Former CEO, Etsy; Former Senior Vice President for Digital Media, NPR
  • Eric Thomas Inventor, LISTSERV; Founder and CEO, L-Soft

Insights into your Social Graph

A growing body of academic research explores how people and online communities are adapting– or failing to adapt– to new technology and social platforms:

  • Dunbar’s Number: Robin Dunbar, a professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, argues that there is a finite number of stable social relationships that the human brain can maintain. It is generally thought that the number is between 100 and 230 relationships.
  • Context Collapse: When a person is interacting face to face, they can adjust their tone and presentation to fit into their social environment. When someone posts to their Facebook or Twitter accounts, the social environment is more complex: Is it appropriate to post pictures of your kids that can be seen by casual work acquaintances? In the context of expanding social networks, the value and context of our different networks may be diminishing.
  • Lurker: People online who read discussions (on email lists, message boards, social networking) but rarely or never actively participate. Lurkers make up the vast majority of online groups.

Interesting Local-Focused Companies and Communities

  • NextDoor: A neighborhood social network that allows neighbors to talk online. It can be used to exchange advice about things such as babysitters and home repair companies. NextDoor can also be used to quickly communicate with your neighbors if, for example, there is a break in or a lost dog.
  • Common Place: A community social network that makes it easier to communicate among neighbors. It can be used to organize community events, exchange advice, and spread news. Common Place does not exist in all neighborhoods, but you can nominate your community to join the social network.
  • Path: A social network that is similar to facebook because it allows you to share updates about your life, including photos and videos. However, Path limits each member to 150 friends so that your communication is more personal and less public. Path’s 150 friend limit is based on Dunbar’s Number.
  • Family Leaf: A social network site that allows you to privately share updates and photos with your family.
  • Patients Like Me: A social networking site that allows patients to share their health experiences with other people who share their condition.
  • OhSoWe: A website that allows neighbors to share resources (items and skills) in order to save money and be green.
  • NeighborGoods and Favor Tree: NeighborGoods is a website that allows people to share items such as ladders and books. In August, Neighborgoods will be closing and turning into FavorTree, which will also act as a resource sharing site.
  • ProBoards
  • Schoology
  • Edmodo

Facts About Listservs

  1. Engineering student Eric Thomas invented LISTSERV, a software program to manage and automate email discussion groups, in 1986 in Paris.

  2. LISTSERV is a registered trademark, owned by Thomas’ software company. Find guidelines for proper usage of the term here.

  3. As of July 31, 2012, there were 541,232 total LISTSERV lists.

  4. One of the most popular early email lists was LINKFAIL, where users could report Internet outages. LINKFAIL grew so big that its own traffic began to generate network failures.


  • 12:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Behold, the enduring power of the neighborhood LISTSERV. Sure, Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we communicate with friends and with long-lost classmates. But if you're looking for a babysitter or a roofer, if you're concerned about a spate of muggings or reckless drivers, most people turn first to their local email lists.

  • 12:07:24

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe software behind LISTSERV was first developed in 1986, and over the last two-and-a-half decades, a whole host of new technologies have tried and failed to dethrone it as the king of local communications. Still, a group of interesting high-tech startups is hoping to stake out turf at the neighborhood level. This Tech Tuesday, we're exploring the history of LISTSERVs and the future of local digital communities. And joining us in studio to do that is Jennifer Golbeck. She's a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Jen, good to see you again.

  • 12:08:00

    PROF. JENNIFER GOLBECKGlad to be back.

  • 12:08:01

    NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Maria Thomas. She is an Internet executive and angel investor in early-stage startups. She was previously the CEO of Etsy, an online marketplace for crafts and original works, and a former senior vice president for digital media at NPR. Maria Thomas, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:21

    MS. MARIA THOMASA pleasure to be here, Kojo.

  • 12:08:22

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at Radio Sweden in Stockholm is Eric Thomas. He is the inventor of LISTSERV, the first program to manage email lists. He's the founder and CEO of L-Soft, a company that licenses LISTSERV software. Eric Thomas, thank you for joining us. And you, too, can feel free to join this conversation. We will be hearing from Eric shortly. You can call us at 800-433-8850.

  • 12:08:50

    NNAMDIYou can send email us to kojo@wamu.org; send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. 800-433-8850. Do you subscribe to neighborhood or other community LISTSERVs? LISTSERVs, that is. Jen, more than any other new communications tool, Facebook has changed the way we interact with each other.

  • 12:09:19

    NNAMDIIt's helped us stay connected with family, helped to share pictures. It's helped us reconnect with long-lost friends, classmates. But if I want to communicate with my neighborhoods, if I'm looking -- with my neighbors, that is -- if I'm looking for a babysitter or I'm looking for a good contractor, if I want to give away an old couch, I'd probably start with my email lists. Why haven't social media taken over these local functions?

  • 12:09:44

    GOLBECKYeah. That's a great question because a lot of people are on social media, right? Facebook has a billion users at this point. But if you look at communities, the thing that we want to ask is, what are the tasks, what are the things that people want to do online? And if you're talking about a community giving away a couch, telling the guy to mow his lawn, basically, what you want to do is post a message or respond to a message.

  • 12:10:07

    GOLBECKYou maybe want to ask a question, share a neighborhood crime report, respond to what somebody says, and that's pretty much it. That covers 90 percent or more of what people want to do with their communities. So you have to ask, do you want all the overhead that comes with Facebook? There's technical glitches. It can go down. You have to log in. You have to share a lot of information about yourself.

  • 12:10:28

    GOLBECKMaybe you don't want all your old high school friends getting in touch with you, right? You just want to post questions and reply to them. Email is much more popular than Facebook. Even though Facebook has a billion users, everybody has an email account if they have Internet access. So these LISTSERVs and email lists are a much easier lower overhead way of people to do the things that they want to do, which are really basic in this case.

  • 12:10:53

    NNAMDIWell, Maria Thomas, you come at this from a pretty unique perspective. You're someone who invests in early-stage companies, but you're also someone who is brought in to help assess businesses models and viability of different ideas. In a way, every new company in this space is operating on a hunch or a thesis about human beings and how we want our technology to work. What startups do you find most intriguing in this kind of neighborhood space right now?

  • 12:11:20

    MARIA THOMASSure, Kojo. Just to pick up on something that Jen was talking about in terms of what's really driving community. One of the frameworks that I like to think about when I'm looking at startups in terms of building communities are what are communities, what are online communities? And I think you can think about different types of communities. There may be communities of interests, communities related to transactions, such as Craigslist, fantasy-type communities, sports leagues and even communities based on relationships, so thinking about online dating, et cetera.

  • 12:11:52

    MARIA THOMASSo that's one of the frames or one of the lenses that I look for when I'm looking at new ideas in this arena and specifically in terms of neighborhoods and trying to crack the nut around neighborhood community. There are a few companies right now that have attracted attention. Just to mention a few names, one is Nextdoor. It's a San Francisco Bay Area company that's recently attracted about $19 million in venture capital. Among the backers in that company are the founder of Zilla, which is an online real estate community.

  • 12:12:22

    MARIA THOMASAnother which has had some success locally in the Falls Church community is a startup company called OurCommonPlace. Another interesting one is -- got a great name called OhSoWe, and one of the things that's interesting about OhSoWe is that the founder of OhSoWe is formerly the founder of a company called OpenTable, which broke into the restaurant reservation arena. So there seems to be a lot of activity in the space, Kojo, and funding and capital following that. But nobody has really cracked the nut just yet.

  • 12:12:55

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's a Tech Tuesday conversation on the future of neighborhood communication with a focus on the endurance of LISTSERVs, and we're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. How do email lists in your view compare to Facebook and other social media platforms? 800-433-8850. Speaking of Facebook, Maria, it allows members to accumulate friends in huge numbers.

  • 12:13:20

    NNAMDIBut most of those work colleagues and those old classmates are not really friends in the classic sense. Are they, in fact, in some ways our friend list is a story of diminishing returns. Every time, we add someone, it means a little less to be on the list, isn't that correct?

  • 12:13:37

    MARIA THOMASI would agree with that, Kojo, and I think one of the interesting things when you think about that dynamic is, how did these friends get into your Facebook network in the first place? And, typically, these are people that we've encountered in different parts of our lives, so they may be family members. They may be members of our physical location-based community. They may be work colleagues, et cetera.

  • 12:13:59

    MARIA THOMASAnd what's interesting is that Facebook has united this network of people, but you're correct in saying that in some cases there are diminishing returns. So as I think about what may be the opportunities on the horizon, I think about what natural networks that exist in the offline world have yet to be more, so to speak, or find their way online. And among those is the neighborhood network.

  • 12:14:24

    NNAMDIJennifer Golbeck?

  • 12:14:25

    GOLBECKYeah. So Maria touches on a really interesting point there, which is on Facebook, we have people from all these different parts of our lives come together on our friends' list, and that's exactly why I don't want to post a message about when the neighborhood barbecue is to my Facebook friends because I have five friends from my neighborhood and 400 friends who have absolutely no interest in my neighborhood, so I'll be inundating them with content that they're not interested in.

  • 12:14:50

    GOLBECKAnd, you know, Google Plus has tried to fix this with Circles, and there's technical ways around it, but there's just a lot of overhead to separate those contexts back out. And when you want to operate in a context like you do with neighborhood content, it's more difficult on social media than it is if you just have a simple mailing list.

  • 12:15:07

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Sarah in Arlington, Va. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:14

    SARAHHi. Thank you so much. I love your show. I wanted to say that I'm a part of a breastfeeding support group, and there's a LISTSERV that was established some years ago. And it helps out moms in tremendous ways, and I wanted to thank the inventor of it. At 2 o'clock in the mooring when you're stressed out and you have a question, you can post it on the LISTSERV, and an hour later, someone has responded.

  • 12:15:38

    SARAHAnd it is such a boon to the community of women. There are probably 600 members of it, I'm guessing right now, and over 500 queries and answers that are established in about a month's time. So it's a big lifesaver out there to a lot of us and...

  • 12:15:57

    NNAMDIUnderscoring the value of the LISTSERV yet once again, Jen.

  • 12:16:01

    GOLBECKYeah. And this is a great point, so this is a little different -- the breastfeeding community versus a neighborhood -- but it gets to a lot of these points we're talking about. One, it's keeping things in context. If you have a breastfeeding question at two in the morning, you probably don't want to post to all of your Facebook friends, either. But the point that Sarah raises really gets to the history of these LISTSERVs.

  • 12:16:20

    GOLBECKThey're used a lot now for neighborhoods, and that's the context of this conversation. But, in fact, they grew up around these special issues, taking people who were geographically distributed but were all interested in the same topic. And originally, a lot of those were very techie or academic topics, but now, you get a lot of support, particularly around medical conditions, things like breastfeeding, health issues where people with similar interests can come together. And that's one of the really interesting and great things about online communities, is that it can do that.

  • 12:16:51


  • 12:16:52

    MARIA THOMASYes. Just to pick up on Sarah's group, which is around breastfeeding, I would classify that as a community of interests as -- in my framework from -- that I described a moment ago. But I think it highlights another important aspect of LISTSERVs relative to social networks. LISTSERVs can put at the center of their universe the interests, and in that way, it's more of a hub-and-spoke model.

  • 12:17:15

    MARIA THOMASSo the interest is at the center, and the people sort of come to it around that interest. Whereas if you look at social networks, such as Facebook, it's the person that's at the center, and the person's network grows from there. So I think it's an important distinction, and one of the reasons why LISTSERVs persist.

  • 12:17:32

    NNAMDIThere's another aspect of social networks that I'd like to talk about, a social media platform called Path. Apparently, Path is taking the work of Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist, and Dunbar says -- and this is what I find really intriguing -- that the maximum number of friendships a human being can sustain is 150. Anymore than that, and the people in your network aren't really your friends at all. So Path is capping their list at 150. What do you think?

  • 12:18:03

    GOLBECKSure. Yes. So this 150 number has been around for a very long time, and I think it's pretty legitimate if you think of what a traditional friendship is. If you're really maintaining a relationship where you are staying in contact, you're checking in with the person, you're following them, but that's not really what friendships are on Facebook, right? A lot of those are acquaintances.

  • 12:18:26

    GOLBECKI have a lot of cousins, and I'm friends with a lot of them on Facebook. And it allows me to keep in touch with them in a way that I wouldn't without Facebook because I can -- I would never call them up in Europe or in New York and see how they're doing. But now, I can see on Facebook, and I can comment. And so it helps kind of sustain that relationship. But we're not talking about my 400 friends on Facebook are like 400 friends in real life. It's a very different kind of relationship. Some of it may mimic a real world friendship, but some of it might not.

  • 12:18:56

    GOLBECKSo for Path to cap it at 150, the hope would be that they're going to push you towards really replicating offline friendships, right? That's what that 150 number would be. And so if you're capping it, it's limiting the number of acquaintances or people that you had casual business relationships with. That kind of social networking that we think of in terms of keeping lots of contacts. Those aren't the people that you would want to put on a list if you're limited to 150.

  • 12:19:22


  • 12:19:23

    MARIA THOMASYes. I would agree with that, and I have a lot of respect for what Path is doing, particularly on the mobile platform. I think they've -- by taking the 150 number, they're addressing some of the quantitative issues that we've spoken about in terms of diminishing returns. It's not clear to me that the qualitative issues that we've discussed are going to be addressed simply by capping the number of friends.

  • 12:19:45

    NNAMDIJoining us now from studios in Sweden is Eric Thomas. He is the inventor of LISTSERV, the first program to manage email lists. He's also the founder and CEO of L-Soft, a company that licenses LISTSERV software. Eric Thomas, thank you so much for joining us. Still can't hear Eric. We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we will try to locate Eric.

  • 12:20:06

    NNAMDIIf you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850. How do email lists compare to Facebook and other social media platforms for you? You can also send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:22:28

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on the future of neighborhood communication. We're talking with Maria Thomas. She is an Internet executive, an angel investor in early-stage startups, previously the CEO of Etsy, an online marketplace for crafts and original works, and the former senior vice president for digital media at NPR. Also in studio with us is Jennifer Golbeck, professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. We go directly to the telephones. Here is Monica in Adams Morgan in D.C. Monica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:23:01

    MONICAHi. Thank you very much for having me. And, yeah, I just wanted to echo what the speaker was saying about Facebook and LISTSERV. I'm a tenant organizer, and I'm often trying to reach out to people in the neighborhood around different issues. I'm just trying to bring people together, and I'm still amazed that LISTSERV really work. I mean, it's the easiest way to get people to come to an event.

  • 12:23:26

    MONICAAnd the difference from Facebook -- 'cause Facebook, you're really just trying to get people connected to a network as opposed to actually having people take action. So I think that that -- using this too is great, but I'm just shocked that LISTSERV are still such a great asset to the community.

  • 12:23:43

    NNAMDIWell, you may be shocked, but they are certainly still a great asset to the community. And they're apparently going to be around for a little while. But we have another perspective, Monica. I'm going to put you on hold so that you can listen to Jamie in Washington, D.C. Jamie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:24:00

    JAMIEHi, Kojo. Thank you again for taking my call.

  • 12:24:02

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:24:03

    JAMIESo I just wanted to give a small, little perspective. I'm 25 years old, and the only time I ever used LISTSERV is through work. And even if that works, it is still just, you know, it's not going to reply all. It's -- if you send back and we get work, first come, first serve because I freelance. I guess, my combination comment/question is, does age have anything to do it? Because I have so many different groups. I have a group for movie nights. I have a group for my street. We have a huge community, Facebook group on my street.

  • 12:24:36

    JAMIEWe always constantly are reporting things, posting things from news articles that we see, which I think that you really can't do as quickly as you can on email LISTSERV. But I think it's really nice, the interface that we can have a chat-like setting, not where it's a constant barrage of emails. And I think it makes it a little bit more convenient when we use Facebook instead of LISTSERV when we're trying to do community organization and community communication, if you understand my point.

  • 12:25:03

    NNAMDII do, I guess, understand your point. But I'll put it onto our guests, which is Jennifer Golbeck and Maria Thomas. Jen, is age a factor in the use of LISTSERV as opposed to the use of social networks?

  • 12:25:16

    GOLBECKI think that there's a few things involved. One, if you have a neighborhood, age can't be a factor, right? Because you have people of all different ages, so it doesn't matter if you have a lot of 25-year-olds who really love Facebook, if you've also got some 50-year-olds who really will never go on Facebook, right? So that's one issue. But I think what Jamie is talking about is really a different set of tasks than what we're mentioning here. So there are certainly overlaps.

  • 12:25:40

    GOLBECKYou could use a LISTSERV for something that you could also use a discussion forum. You could also use Facebook. And part of the point I was raising before is that you want to find the technology that everyone's really comfortable with. In a neighborhood, that's probably going to be email because even the least techno-savvy people, if they're online, are going to have an email account.

  • 12:25:59

    GOLBECKBut the task that Jamie was talking about, you know, really having in-depth discussions, potentially doing chat, sharing links or sharing photos, goes a little bit beyond what you might want to do in basic email, right? Basic email absolutely has limitations, and if you want threaded discussions, right, where you have a bunch of different topics going on at once, that can be hard if you're doing email, whether you're getting a barrage of a bunch of messages a day or if they're being collected and you're trying to go through this huge list at night.

  • 12:26:28

    GOLBECKSo it sounds like Facebook or some of these other technologies may support his task better. But if you're really just trying to post questions and respond to questions like you do in these neighborhoods, short discussions, LISTSERVs, a lot of time are the best thing.

  • 12:26:41


  • 12:26:42

    MARIA THOMASJust one point to add to all of that, Kojo, is I noticed that Jamie used the word street when he was describing his neighborhood, and he probably didn't mean for me to pick on his specific language. But I do think there's something important there about what really defines neighborhood and the kinds of relationships that we might have with our neighbors, broadly speaking. There is a saying that I think most of your listeners will know which is, good fences make good neighbors. And I think if you sort of peel back the onion on that, there may be something there around.

  • 12:27:13

    MARIA THOMASWe want to have a relationship with our neighbors, that it's a trusting and important relationship when it comes to recommendations, reviews, suggestions, cooperation around community interests, maybe cooperation around community politics, but in some cases, we don't really want to have a social relationship with our neighbors because we have a social network that's different than our neighborhood.

  • 12:27:34

    MARIA THOMASSo there's a tension in there, and maybe on Jamie's street, there's a different relationship that the neighbors have where they actually are friends. And I'm sure that's true on a number of streets in this country and other countries. But there is a certain tension involved in those -- the nature of those relationships.

  • 12:27:49

    NNAMDIJamie, thank you very much for your call. We move back to Monica. Monica in Adams Morgan, do you use others -- do you use social networks in addition to your use of LISTSERVs?

  • 12:28:00

    MONICAI use both the LISTSERVs and Facebook, but I feel like the LISTSERVs have become a part of the community. So whenever you move into a building or whenever you move into a neighborhood, usually the first thing that people do, even people that are in their early 20s or even in their 50s, is you connect on to a LISTSERV to kind of feel out what's happening in your neighborhood and, I guess, just get to know people better because, other than issues, it's also a really good way to connect to your neighbors. And you don't have to be best friends with them, but you can create community with them.

  • 12:28:36

    NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Monica. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you subscribe to neighborhood or other community LISTSERVs? How does this technology affect the way you see your friends and neighbors? 800-433-8850, or if you want to tell us about a topic that's trending, so to speak, on your LISTSERV, you may want to share that with us also at 800-433-8850. I think we've got Eric Thomas back. Eric Thomas, are you there?

  • 12:29:02

    MR. ERIC THOMASYes. Hello, I'm here.

  • 12:29:03

    NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us or for rejoining us.

  • 12:29:06

    ERIC THOMASThank you for the opportunity.

  • 12:29:08

    NNAMDIEric, we tend to use the word LISTSERV as a generic noun to describe all...

  • 12:29:12

    ERIC THOMASYou shouldn't do that.

  • 12:29:13

    NNAMDI...email lists from Google Groups and Yahoo Groups. But this is actually a trademark term like...

  • 12:29:18

    ERIC THOMASIt's a trademark.

  • 12:29:20

    NNAMDI...Xerox or Kleenex that you own, isn't it?

  • 12:29:23

    ERIC THOMASAbsolutely correct. And when I incorporated my company -- I think I was 26 then -- the lawyer I met told me that given how widely known LISTSERV was, he felt I should invest approximately $500 million a year protecting the trademark so that I wouldn't lose it. And I -- you know, I'm from France. I was in New York City, and I told myself, wait a second. Do 26-year-old Americans typically make half a billion dollars a year? Maybe I'm in the wrong country. And so, of course, I didn't have...

  • 12:29:51

    NNAMDIYou mean you didn't have a half a billion dollars in your pocket at the time?

  • 12:29:54

    ERIC THOMASNo. I started the company with $3,000 and a laptop. I didn't have that kind of money. That was the least of my concerns. But, yes, people, you know, people say what they say, and we just have to accept it.

  • 12:30:08

    NNAMDIWell, LISTSERVs allow a moderator to manage sprawling community conversations. Exactly what, in your view, is a LISTSERV?

  • 12:30:16

    ERIC THOMASOh, I can't legally answer that question, but if you ask me about a mailing list -- I don't know -- it's a vehicle that brings people together that have a common passion or interest, a common interest or share a common problem. And it's kind of -- you know, we started in the '80s, so people have always had a need to meet and to congregate and to share their ideas, the things that excite them and to share their sorrow as well and their pain and so on. And with LISTSERV, you were -- with email as a, you know, before even LISTSERV, with email, you were able to do these regardless of distance.

  • 12:30:55

    ERIC THOMASAnd that, I believe, was one of the fundamental barriers that we as a civilization had to reach, that we had the passion for something. But, you know, a village, there were only five other guys that knew about that. So we could only share with five people, whereas, now, the world is open. And so what LISTSERV did was to automate the process, make it more convenient, provide tools and so on and so forth. Even before the Web, that made it possible to do this in a more vibrant and effective way.

  • 12:31:26

    NNAMDIIndeed, you invented this more than 25 years ago -- 26 years ago before there was an Internet.

  • 12:31:31

    ERIC THOMASThat's right, 26 years.

  • 12:31:33

    NNAMDIHow was the technology and the way it's used evolved over that time period?

  • 12:31:40

    ERIC THOMASWell, I mean the speed of the network has increased dramatically. Back then, the Europe and the United States were connected by two lines of 9.6K, you know, like the old-fashion modems. And, of course, now we have a totally different speed. And so this has made it possible to do things that we could only dream of back then, but I think the fundamental premises remain the same. And it's funny that you were mentioning the 150 limit to...

  • 12:32:09

    NNAMDIYeah, we're going to get back to that.

  • 12:32:09

    ERIC THOMAS...the official contacts we have. Yeah, good.

  • 12:32:12

    NNAMDIGo ahead.

  • 12:32:12

    ERIC THOMASI was trying to talk there, and it didn't work. And so I think that it's wrong to cap a mailing list at 150 because not everybody is going to be an active participant. But reflecting back on that, all the lists that I know since 1986 -- that's a lot of list -- I have never seen successful list with more than somewhere around 100, sometimes to 200 active participants. These are the guys who are posting on a regular basis, not somebody who is just writing 'cause he has a problem and he wants some help.

  • 12:32:48

    ERIC THOMASBut people who participate on a regular basis on the list that flourishes, it's always around 100 to 200. And you might have 5,000 people on the list, but it's only going to be 100 people keeping it alive...

  • 12:33:01

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned...

  • 12:33:02

    ERIC THOMAS...otherwise the list gets split. People split the list. There's a conflict, and the list owner splits the list into two lists in order to stay below the threshold. And they have not thought about that until recently when somebody happened to mention this Dunbar's magic number. I think it's true.

  • 12:33:19

    NNAMDIWell, we get back to the Dunbar magic number that is you can't really have -- sustain more than 150 friends. It's generally known as Dunbar's number. Jen, people who study the Web from an academic perspective have a name for this phenomenon. They call it context collapse. What is context collapse?

  • 12:33:36

    GOLBECKYeah. This is a really interesting concept. And we, at University of Maryland, have a new faculty member coming on, and this is just what she studies. And it's so interesting. So this is what I was talking about with Facebook where you'll have friends from work, friends from your soccer league or your hockey league, friends from your neighborhood, friends from high school, friends from college.

  • 12:33:54

    GOLBECKAll of those are different contexts of your life, and you present yourself very differently most of the time in those contexts. I act very different at work than I do when I'm playing hockey. And I have different relationships with those kinds of people. So not only am I presenting a different version of myself, but the content that's of interest to those people that I want to share is different. On Facebook, the context for all those relationships completely collapses. There's no good way to really keep that separate.

  • 12:34:22

    GOLBECKThere's little technological things you can do to try to separate all of your friends, but it gets very hard, very fast to keep all of those contexts manually maintained. So some people will resort to having multiple Facebook accounts. I have multiple Twitter accounts. I have one for hockey and life, and I have one for academic...

  • 12:34:39

    NNAMDIField hockey or ice hockey?

  • 12:34:40

    GOLBECKIce hockey.

  • 12:34:40

    NNAMDIOh, please don't bring that persona while you're here.

  • 12:34:44

    GOLBECKBut I, you know, I had one Twitter account for a very long time, and it -- you know, I had all of these professional followers, and I was tweeting during Caps game, which is completely uninteresting to them, so I ended up separating them out. And this idea of context collapse makes us think about how do we keep these parts of our life separate, where do we want to merge them, what are the impacts of them overlapping? And that's a real issue for a lot of social media right now.

  • 12:35:07

    NNAMDIEric, when we look at email lists that stretch across thousands of numbers and dozens of different strands, it can be extremely confusing. What solutions do you see for context collapse?

  • 12:35:19

    ERIC THOMASI mean, I think the reason that lists have succeeded is that they respect the context collapse. You do not see lists grow beyond the limit. This is why you have thousands and thousands and thousands of parenting lists, which are basically all the same, but they are split because if you would have one moms list for the whole country with millions of people, it would never work. It would never work.

  • 12:35:46

    ERIC THOMASAnd people will spontaneously form chapters and subchapters until they would go down to a list that's manageable. And, personally, I don't like to be on a list with more than 1,000 people because it's too much traffic, and it -- the discussion goes out of topic too easily.

  • 12:36:01

    NNAMDIWell, we will hear the experience of a list that has some 12,000 members on it, Eric, because joining us now by phone is Peggy Robin, co-owner and co-moderator of the Cleveland Park Listserv, which bills itself as one of the biggest LISTSERVs in the country with over 12,000 members as I mentioned. Peggy Robin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:36:21

    MS. PEGGY ROBINThank you for having me.

  • 12:36:22

    NNAMDIMost of these email lists evolved into sprawling conversations with dozens of strands at any one time. But the Cleveland Park Listserv is pretty unique for its size and for the role you and your husband play moderating it. Tell us how it got started.

  • 12:36:37

    ROBINWe started it in 1999. And when we first announced it to our neighbors, we had people joining by word of mouth. We quickly grew to 500 members and then 1,000 members. And around 1,000 members, we started realizing that we were going to have to moderate this list pretty heavily or else you would get an enormous amount of email per day and you'd get off listings. The first experience that brought that home to us was when Elian Gonzalez...

  • 12:37:08

    NNAMDITwelve years ago in the year 2000, young Elian Gonzales became the center of an international showdown between Cuba and the United States after his mother died during an illegal boat crossing. His father back in Cuba demanded his return. Family in Miami insisted he be allowed to stay. That whole story should not have had anything to do with the Cleveland Park Listserv.

  • 12:37:31

    ROBINExcept that he went to stay in a house in Cleveland Park while the case was being adjudicated for criminal court.

  • 12:37:36

    NNAMDII remember.

  • 12:37:38

    ROBINAnd, suddenly, the Cleveland Park Listserv started getting people joining from Miami and inundating the lists with the scripts all in capital letters, ELIAN MUST STAY IN FLORIDA. And this has had nothing to do with traffic in Cleveland Park or where do I find a good plumber or anything that people were interested in discussing. And we made a decision at that time to moderate every single -- that is review before we post every single email that goes through.

  • 12:38:09

    ROBINAnd because of that, not only were we no longer bothered by people in Florida telling us -- telling a little Cuban boy what he should do, but we've been able to grow 1,000 members every year into our present number of 12,000 and have people stick to the neighborhood and talk to each other respectfully. We don't put through any messages where people are saying, why don't you mow your lawn? None of that is on our list.

  • 12:38:38

    NNAMDIAnybody can join the Cleveland Park Listserv, but all comments are moderated by you and your husband. This is a different model than other large lists in the region. In Chevy Chase, for example, their list is private, so you need to be approved to join. What are the benefits of your more open system?

  • 12:38:54

    ROBINI think we have the best of both worlds because everybody who's interested in the neighborhood or works here, lives here, can read, and they can post. But let's say somebody is asking why are all those helicopters hovering overhead, we're going to put through one accurate answer rather than have 15 different people speculating as to what's going on.

  • 12:39:18

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Crystal in Upper Marlboro, Md. Crystal, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:25

    CRYSTALHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I was wondering. I am a member of a homeschool group of people in Maryland, Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area. And we are looking for a way to share information about classes and opportunities and those kinds of things that go on for homeschoolers in this area. We're trying to figure out what is the best thing to do: email list, LISTSERV, a webpage, a Facebook page, a blog.

  • 12:39:55

    CRYSTALWe'd like to be able to add calendar events for things like homeschool days at Mount Vernon and those kinds of activities. And I was just wondering if your guests could give me some advice.

  • 12:40:05

    NNAMDIWell, I'll start with Maria Thomas. Maria, are these tools necessarily mutually exclusive? Can't one use a combination of one or several?

  • 12:40:14

    MARIA THOMASSure, absolutely. And I think for what Crystal is describing, it sounds like the needs of that particular group include content sharing, recommendations, maybe lesson plan sharing or lesson organization, calendaring, as she mentioned. I'm not aware of a specific site that's addressing that specific community of interest, meaning homeschoolers. I do know that there are some sites that have cropped up around education in general.

  • 12:40:44

    MARIA THOMASI'll mention a couple, and they may or may not apply to Crystal's situation. One is called Edmodo, which is centered around classes and sort of classes as the community of interest. Schoology would be another. Again, I'm not certain that these are targeted to homeschoolers.

  • 12:41:01

    GOLBECKYeah. I would...

  • 12:41:02


  • 12:41:02

    GOLBECKI would agree that a hybrid solution might be the right thing. So Facebook has all of the features that you want, but I think it would be really clunky to try to manage that through Facebook. So if I were to give you some specific suggestions, I would say -- just based on what Crystal said she needed now -- is to look at a tool called ProBoards, which is a forum. So you can have threaded discussions. You can have categories of things, and then threads within there.

  • 12:41:27

    GOLBECKI use that for a couple of online communities that I'm part of, and it's really good, stable. It's free, but you can upgrade to get rid of the ads for a pretty low amount. And I think that would handle all the discussions. And then you might want to look at sticking on some other technology like a Google Calendar or something that could be pointed to, and it could handle the events in a really nice way without looking for some technology that tries to smoosh it all together, but doesn't do any of it that well.

  • 12:41:53

    NNAMDICrystal, thank you for your call, and good luck to you. We move on to Cecile in Washington, D.C. Cecile, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:03

    CECILEI'd like to refer you to a website, and I'll give you the address and then tell you why I'm calling. It's http://www.L-S-O-F-T.com/corporate/legal.asp.

  • 12:42:23

    NNAMDIWell, in case you're just joining us, Cecile, allow me to introduce you to Eric Thomas, the inventor of LISTSERV.

  • 12:42:31

    CECILEAll right.

  • 12:42:32

    NNAMDIHe is...

  • 12:42:32

    ERIC THOMASAnd, Cecile, that's...

  • 12:42:33

    NNAMDIHe's on the line...

  • 12:42:33

    ERIC THOMAS...that's my company, actually.

  • 12:42:35


  • 12:42:35

    NNAMDI...and you just gave us the Web address for his company.

  • 12:42:38

    CECILEOK. I did not realize that. But what I did not hear in this discussion -- and perhaps I missed it -- is that LISTSERV is a registered trademark. I had heard one time that it was copyrighted, and I just researched that. And I found out instead it's trademarked. And the fastest way is to go to the address I gave you. But my understanding from participating on what we were calling an email discussion list is that, because of the trademarking, we could not use the term LISTSERV to refer to any group that did not use the LISTSERV product.

  • 12:43:12

    CECILETherefore, the Association of Independent Information Professionals always refer to our list as an email discussion list. And I've been careful, throughout my career, to not use the word LISTSERV.

  • 12:43:24

    NNAMDIEric Thomas, can you clarify on them and then give us a little bit of information about your own business model?

  • 12:43:30

    ERIC THOMASRight. Well, it's true. It is a trademark. You can go to the PTO and look it up. It's registered to me personally. I think -- I can't -- it's hard for me to discuss that because my lawyers don't let me discuss any generic use. But I do think that the generic use of the word LISTSERV is fraught with peril because there are all kinds of different types of mailing lists that are powered by LISTSERV.

  • 12:43:58

    ERIC THOMASAnd these kind of range from discussion lists to one-way announcement lists where you -- you know, press releases and things like that, to moderated lists like the Cleveland Park list, to newsletters, to everything. So I think that it's doing a disservice to the community to use a generic term that can mean several things. I think it's better to say that we have a discussion list or that we have a newsletter.

  • 12:44:22

    NNAMDIDo you see LISTSERV, your business model, as being in competition with the services that social networks are now providing?

  • 12:44:30

    ERIC THOMASNo. I think we complement each other, actually. Most of our customers -- I mean, when you want to -- OK, we're talking about neighborhoods today, so that's another angle. Well, let's talk about neighborhoods then. I think that to answer the previous question -- I think that was Cecile that was asking, what technology should I use? I was going to say -- my first reaction was to say all of the above because I think that you need a presence on Facebook because there's going to be -- a certain type of people are more comfortable with this medium.

  • 12:45:02

    ERIC THOMASAnd in the end, what's important for a neighborhood type of community is that everybody should feel comfortable and fluent with the technology so that you can have rich and regular communication. And at the same time, I also think that, in order to have a more in-depth type of communication, you should also use a mailing list.

  • 12:45:21

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Cecile, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking about the future of neighborhood communication and the origin of LISTSERV with the inventor of LISTSERV. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:47:41

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the future of neighborhood communication. We're talking with Eric Thomas. He is the inventor of LISTSERV, the first program to manage email lists. He's also founder and CEO of L-Soft, a company that licenses LISTSERV software. He joins us from studios at Radio Sweden in Stockholm. Jennifer Golbeck is a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland.

  • 12:48:02

    NNAMDIAnd Maria Thomas is an Internet executive and angel investor in early-stage startups. She was previously the CEO of Etsy, an online marketplace for crafts and original works, and the former senior vice president of Digital Media at NPR. Peggy Robin is co-owner and co-moderator of the Cleveland Park Listserv, which is really not a LISTSERV at all. It is technically a Google group. It bills itself as one of the biggest such in the country with over 12,000 members. Peggy Robin, as I mentioned, the Cleveland Park Listserv is technically a Google group, so it's...

  • 12:48:36

    ROBINOh, no, we're a Yahoo group.

  • 12:48:38

    NNAMDIOh, a Yahoo group. So it isn't technically a LISTSERV. A lot of technology has advanced since 1999 when you started this group. Have you been tempted to change platforms?

  • 12:48:48

    ROBINWe have been tempted. And then we think about it, and we realize what makes this group so successful is its simplicity. It is on a very simple platform, but everybody understands email, even some of our older members. We do have all-ages members, but we have a lot of old people. And they're home at their computers, and they understand email. They may not understand Facebook or Twitter, but they can email.

  • 12:49:13

    NNAMDII logged on to the Cleveland Park website, and it has over 11 pages of rules. Where did all those rules come from?

  • 12:49:22

    ROBINWe started out with no rules at all. And, in fact, that was our goal, to keep things simple and just have people send in their emails. And once we started moderating, we thought, well, we'll screen out the ones that are nasty or don't contribute too much to the discussion. But then we realized we really didn't need rules, and every rule that's there has gotten added one by one because somebody found a way around whatever rules we were just trying to enforce and practice.

  • 12:49:55

    ROBINWe've had people trying to shill and, you know, pretend that they're somebody that they're not to recommend a business when they, in fact, are the business. We've had a lot of things, so we learn from experience.

  • 12:50:06

    NNAMDILast year, Google unveiled its own social media platform called Google Plus which Google hoped would effectively take on Facebook for dominance of the social space. One very interesting innovation was the concept, you mentioned earlier, of Circles. Given the power to refine the people in your social graph, unlike Facebook which only has friends, you can create categories like work friend or, for that matter, fake friends. Why did this idea not take off, Jen?

  • 12:50:34

    GOLBECKI think a lot of it has to do with the fact that so many people are on Facebook. You have a huge investment on Facebook, even if you aren't one of these people with 2,000 Facebook friends. So, say, you only are adding your real friends on Facebook and you've got maybe 80 or 100 of them. That's on the low end of Facebook friends. That's a huge investment and really valuable, right? If you actually like using social networks, you want to see what your friends are doing. You want to see their updates.

  • 12:50:58

    GOLBECKYou want to post comments on them. You want to share photos with those people. And if you go over to Google Plus, it's a little bit of a wasteland at this point. There's just not a lot going on there. There are small groups of people that are using it in pockets, but it doesn't have the kind of traffic. And your friends aren't all there like they are on Facebook. So for people to go over to Google Plus, it would require all of their friends to go over there, too.

  • 12:51:22

    GOLBECKAnd I don't think what they're offering through the Circles is enough of an added value that people are willing to take the risk and start moving over there and give up a lot of the photos and relationships and everything that they have on Facebook. I think Google needs to offer more to get people to come over.

  • 12:51:38


  • 12:51:39

    MARIA THOMASI certainly agree with Jen's point, which is really the chicken-and-egg point. And once you get a scale on the Internet, the Internet rewards scale. So it's hard to catch up. I would add that there's -- there may be an issue of trust. I think Google has done a good job from a product perspective of recognizing the multiple-identity issue that Jen pointed out earlier. That is to say that we all have multiple identities. And Google created a product that allows you to express that.

  • 12:52:06

    MARIA THOMASHowever, it was second to market and has a chicken-and-egg problem. But in addition to that, Google has a lot of information, and there may be a trust issue there as well.

  • 12:52:15


  • 12:52:16

    GOLBECKYeah. And Google screwed this up before. If you remember Google Buzz, that was this product that was their predecessor to Google Plus. And they turned it on for everybody. And they shared all of your pictures with the people they decided were your friends, so everything that you had kind of went public without your consent. So the trust was low. And I think that this chicken-egg point is a really good one.

  • 12:52:39

    GOLBECKFacebook took over from MySpace, right, and they did that because MySpace was this ugly, like, unicorn-infested, automatically playing video, teen-girl space, and it was just hideous and hard to use. Then Facebook came along. And it was clean and beautiful, and that wasn't going to happen. And it made people switch.

  • 12:52:56

    NNAMDIWell, Eric referred earlier to people who are active on these email lists. But, Eric, I interrupted you. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:03

    ERIC THOMASRight. I think the main reason Google Plus isn't taking off is that, for the average person, it would be twice the work because you're not going to close down your Facebook account just because you're opening a Google Plus account. So that means you're going to have to create and maintain two profiles. You have to post news on two sites, and then you have -- most importantly, you have to read two ticker feeds with all the stuff your friends are doing. So it's the twice the work, and you're going to read the same news on the two sites because it's the same friends. So why do that?

  • 12:53:32

    ROBINWell, what Yahoo Groups allows is for the moderators to determine -- the moderators are the list owners, and they determine the character and the functioning of the group. And the group can function in a lot of different ways. It can be all moderated as we are. It can moderate some members but not others. The owner sets the tone, and the owner does all the work. So I think that accounts for a lot of the success of Yahoo Groups. And some of the Yahoo Groups that are not that successful don't have owners who have figured out how to moderate successfully.

  • 12:54:01

    NNAMDIAs I was saying, Eric referred earlier to people who are active in these email lists. But how about those people who are, well, not so active? Some people start or join a list because they consider themselves a leader.

  • 12:54:11

    ERIC THOMASThe lurkers.

  • 12:54:12

    NNAMDIExactly right. A lot of research has gone into so-called lurkers, people who watch the email but don't actually post on the email list. Who are these people? First you, Eric.

  • 12:54:24

    ERIC THOMASIt's a good question because actually, by definition, since they never say anything, we just have their email address so we can search them on Google and see if they have a profile on some kind of site. A lot of them are shy. They de-lurk, they de-cloak, as we say, after a while. They have a pressing need. They write to the list, and then they realize nobody is going to bite them. And from that point on, they become contributors. But I think some people just like to read the list, just get it in their mailbox.

  • 12:54:55

    ROBINI meet a lot of (unintelligible) in person, and they find out that I'm the moderator of the Cleveland Park List. And they say, oh, yes, I've been on that list for years. I love it. I've never posted, but I love to hear the recommendations for contractors. And I love to read what's going on in the neighborhood. And the only way I understand the residential parking permit rules is because people are discussing it on the LISTSERV.

  • 12:55:15

    NNAMDIAnd for those people who may be lurkers who are simply looking to get informed -- say, for instance, you're interested in beekeeping. but you don't know a great deal about beekeeping, would one join a mailing -- an email list for that reason, Jen?

  • 12:55:29

    GOLBECKWell, this is the example that I was talking about with your producer before the show. I started keeping bees this summer.

  • 12:55:33

    NNAMDIUh oh.

  • 12:55:34

    GOLBECKAnd I know so little about keeping bees, it's not even funny. And so I'm on a list of very experienced beekeepers. I have nothing to contribute to any conversation. Every time somebody asks a question, I go, oh, my gosh, that can happen? And then I look at what people post in response.

  • 12:55:50

    GOLBECKBut lurkers are actually really important parts of online communities 'cause if you think of, for example, this breastfeeding mailing list that one of your first callers talked about or a neighborhood list if you've just moved in to a community, if you have, as Eric was saying, this small number of people maybe 100 people on the list with 1,000 people who are active, if they're only talking to one another, there's a lot less conversation that's going to go on.

  • 12:56:13

    GOLBECKBut if you know there's 900 other people out there, right, or there's 10,000 other people out there who are listening to your conversation, they may be a lot more willing. The experienced people may be more willing to share their knowledge because they know it's not just a conversation with those active people. It's sharing information with a lot of others. So the lurkers add vitality to a community even if they're not posting.

  • 12:56:32

    NNAMDIAnd, speaking of sharing, here is Chris in Leesburg, Va. Chris, what would you like to share?

  • 12:56:38

    CHRISHey, Kojo. Thanks for having me. Yeah. I was listening to the conversation, and it made me think of a social media solution that I came across on the Web last weekend. It's called ShareMobile. And what ShareMobile is -- the way -- it's user-generated based, so it uses the power of crowdsourcing. And it really is geared towards engaging the community to share with each other and communicate with each other online. And I just think it would be a great tool or solution for any kind of membership organization or club or community or neighborhood.

  • 12:57:19

    NNAMDIOh. And, Maria, it's my understanding that you are event -- involved in a venture about sharing office space called Loosecubes.

  • 12:57:26

    THOMASThat's correct. And I was going to echo Jen's sentiments around getting into a group or a LISTSERV when you're new to a topic, and the same is true for me. I'm currently an interim president and COO of the New York-based company called Loosecubes, which, as you say, is creating a network to match up independent workers with office space in given locations. And this concept is sometimes called co-working. And I didn't know about co-working, so I joined the Google group on co-working to be educated.

  • 12:57:55

    NNAMDIMaria Thomas is an Internet executive and angel investor in early-stage startups. Jennifer Golbeck is a professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Eric Thomas is the inventor of LISTSERV, the first program to manage email lists. He's also founder and CEO of L-Soft, a company that licenses LISTSERV software. And Peggy Robin is co-owner and co-moderator of the Cleveland Park Listserv. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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